Salt is an important nutrient for the human body. It helps balance fluids in the blood, helps maintain healthy blood pressure, and helps nerve and muscle function. But we don’t actually need that much—and most people are getting way too much. Now, the FDA is asking food manufacturers to cut salt by 12 percent.
“More than 70 percent of the sodium we consume is from packaged and prepared foods, so the FDA has issued voluntary targets for 16 different food categories in an effort to encourage food manufacturers to produce food with less sodium,” says Kris Sollid, RD, the senior director of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council. “Sodium plays a vital role in packaged foods—taste and safety are two important reasons why. But there are some food categories where, on average, sodium content can be reduced through reformulation without impacting taste or safety.”
The hope, Sollid says, is that the targets established will reduce the amount of sodium used in food production, and as a result people will lower their daily sodium intake. “Currently, Americans consume an average of approximately 3,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day. The goal of this initiative is to cut intake down to an average of 3,000 mg per day over the next two and a half years.”
Here’s the kicker: 3,000 mg a day is still too much.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans base their recommendation on the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which currently recommend that adults consume no more than 2,300 mg per day (roughly one teaspoon).
If you think you’re in the clear because you rarely reach for the salt shaker, think again. As we mentioned, the majority of most Americans' daily sodium intake comes from processed foods, not table salt. “Processed food items, convenience food items—like frozen meals, soups, and so on—restaurant food, and fast food are the primary sources of sodium in the American diet,” says Melissa Rifkin, MS, RD, CDN. “There isn't a difference in how your body responds to the sodium, whether it is used in the cooking process or added on top.”
This made us wonder if the FDA is even going far enough. “Any time the government or news media shines a light on a story like this, it brings to light issues that we often ignore,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RDN, CDN. “These recommendations are meant to help people choose foods wisely, but they don’t come without an effort. Unless you’re checking labels to see how much sodium is in a serving of the foods you commonly eat, you won’t be aware of how much salt you’re really taking in, especially because there is so much 'hidden' salt.”
Checking nutrition labels is essential, especially when it comes to foods like soups, breads, sauces and even baked goods. Yes, there’s plenty of salt in baked goods—even sweet ones. (Highly salty foods don’t always taste salty.) Because salt has addictive properties, many manufacturers load sweet treats with salt and then cover the taste with heaps of sugar.
According to Taub-Dix among the biggest culprits when it comes to hidden salts are the below:
- Canned soup: 700 mg sodium per cup
- Bagels: 500 mg sodium for an average bagel
- Salad dressing: 300-500 mg sodium per serving (and we often use more than one serving)
- Frozen meals: 1100+ mg sodium per serving
- Pickles: 800 mg sodium per medium pickle
Clearly, it’s easy to hit the one teaspoon mark before we’ve even gotten to dinner, and that’s the serious problem the FDA is trying to help with. “A high daily sodium intake can exacerbate certain medical conditions, it can contribute to fluid retention, and it can lead to high blood pressure. All of these can, in turn, lead to a slew of other health issues, like heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease,” says Rifkin.
We'll be the first to admit that cutting down on salt is anything but easy. One way that dietitians recommend going about it is to fill your salt shaker with seasonings and spices, instead of salt. “Ground cumin, for example, adds a wonderful smoky and earthy flavor to food,” says Sollid. “Add it to your homemade guacamole and tacos for an extra punch. Garlic powder is another versatile one.”
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